ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca Gun Smokestack is slated to undergo an evaluation of its structural health in the coming months as the city mulls what the future of the site will be.

The decision came during Wednesday’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting, where topics ranged from the smokestack to the nitty-gritty of green energy infrastructure and zoning permits to the city’s proposed Unsanctioned Encampments Plan, though the latter topic will be covered in a separate article.

Ithaca Gun Smokestack – Funding Request for Structural Evaluation

In May, in a narrow 3-2 vote, the PEDC voted to move forward with finding an outside party to conduct a conditions assessment for potential preservation of the Ithaca Gun smokestack as stated within the provisions of the Development Agreement first approved with Travis Hyde Properties back in 2007, and reapproved with Visum Development Group earlier this year.

Fast-forward to the current day and a firm and cost estimate have been supplied for the city’s consideration. To be clear, the consultant had to possess “professional qualifications and expertise relevant to the examination and preservation of historic structures,” and the proposed report had to assess the existing condition of the smokestack, identify deficiencies impacting its long-term survival, and provide cost estimates for any required and/or recommended stabilization or repair work.

Four estimates were reviewed, and Vertical Access, an Ithaca-based consulting firm, was identified as the preferred consultant based on their professional qualifications and the scope of their proposed report.

Vertical Access proposes a fee of $33,137 to complete the existing conditions assessment of the Ithaca Gun Company smokestack, which is more than the $15,000-$30,000 total cost that the city initially estimated. Visum has agreed to split the cost in half, so the city would commit to paying $16,569.

City Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken has proposed the city set aside a total of $18,000 in the budget so there’s some padding in case the inspection has to be done in the winter. The plan is to inspect in late September, but if the city delays and it has to be scheduled on or after Nov. 15, winter safety equipment will raise the total bill from $33,137, to $35,480.

The PEDC has to sign off on the $18,000 allotment, and if they do, it’ll go to the full Common Council in early September for consideration and a potential vote of final approval.

Heading into the meeting, the topic had potential to be contentious. The committee was initially reluctant to allocate the $7,500 to $15,000 for the city’s half of the assessment, believing the site’s history with guns and environmental contamination made the smokestack an undesirable historical relic.

In response, city staff prepared a public outreach survey to garner feedback from the community on the city’s involvement with preserving the smokestack — and it was overwhelmingly in favor, much to the dismay of certain committee members. It was enough to sway Alderperson Tiffany Kumar (D-4th Ward) to support a study, but Alderpersons Cynthia Brock (D-1st) and Phoebe Brown (D-2nd) remained opposed to any city support for preservation of the smokestack.

Discussion of the proposal was surprisingly minimal, with just some clarification questions from Kumar. The vote to send the allotment request for Vertical Access’s smokestack analysis to council passed unanimously 4-0.

Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Plan

The DER plan has to do with the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) initiative approved by the Common Council last September. A CCA allows local governments to go out onto the open market and purchase power directly from energy service providers other than the one that dominates its retail region, which in the case of Ithaca is New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG). The power is being purchased on behalf of the residents of a town, village, or city, and can include multiple municipalities. In New York State, residents of a municipality can be automatically enrolled into the CCA, but they have the right to opt out of CCA agreements.

Municipalities don’t get to choose where their power comes from when buying from NYSEG. A CCA can be crafted for a community to find cheaper energy, regardless of whether it’s generated from solar farms or natural gas.

In the case of Ithaca, the CCA that is being explored would be crafted for the City to purchase 100% renewable electricity. However, the transmission infrastructure that would bring the electricity to people’s homes is owned by NYSEG, so the utility company would still have a transmission fee included in people’s electric bills.

In collaboration with the Town of Ithaca, the CCA program has been named Tompkins Green Energy Network, or “T-GEN,” in an effort to better describe the program in title and serve as its public-facing component. (More background on T-GEN is available here from May) Consistent with the January 2023 NYS Public Service Commission (PSC) order to allow T-GEN to be implemented, the Town and City of Ithaca must formally adopt voluntary investment programs associated with T-GEN. The Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Plan is the formal name for that voluntary green infrastructure investment program.

Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) are efficiency, electrification, and/or power generation and storage units on the consumer side of the electric meter. Common examples of DERs are solar arrays, hydrogen fuel cells, geothermal loops, and battery storage. Less common examples that are included in Ithaca’s DER plan for cooperative investment include electric vehicles, heat pumps, and demand response and virtual
aggregation technologies.

The purpose of including a DER plan to complement T-GEN is to increase the local deployment of renewable energy technologies to avoid costs associated with electricity grid infrastructure investment, avoid problems associated with traditional Renewable Energy Certificates, and decrease carbon emissions.

That lengthy explanation may seem somewhat confusing, and members of the PEDC thought so too. City Sustainability Director Rebecca Evans was on hand to discuss the DER plan in conjunction with T-GEN. T-GEN does not replace infrastructure like power lines, it does not replace NYSEG, and it doesn’t stop the steep delivery rate increases NYSEG is proposing. It provides an intermunicipal co-operative approach to purchase renewable electricity to flow through those lines, helping the city reduce its carbon emissions.

According to Evans, the proposed DER plan provides a pathway for households to voluntary invest in renewable energy, electrification, and efficiency technologies, and T-GEN’s Administrator will coordinate consumer-end infrastructure investments between individual customers, customer groups (renters), green energy builders (solar installers, heat pump installers) and lenders.

The DER allows people to invest in green infrastructure and utilize T-GEN’s coordinator, lenders and builders to develop those solar arrays and battery storage facilities and get a cut of the profits from power generation and storage.

In response to a question from Alderperson Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd), Evans said that customer collectives could be anything from a block of neighbors agreeing to pay for solar panels in someone’s backyard, to a matchmaking process of people scattered around the city who want to pay for the installation and maintenance of electric vehicle charging stations.

Nguyen expressed caution that the DER process sounded technical and complicated, and Evans stressed that there would be ample time for public comment and informational meetings, as the DER wouldn’t go into effect until mid-2025.

The board was receptive, if still cautious and clear about the need to engage and inform the public on the rather dense topic matter. The vote to send T-GEN’s associated DER Plan on to the full Common Council for discussion next month passed 4-0.

Streamlined Zoning Permits

Currently, the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) currently reviews variance requests for alterations, additions, and new construction that are deficient in one or more zoning area requirements. These area requirements most often include yard setbacks, lot coverage by buildings, off-street parking, and location of accessory structures. The majority of these appeals involve properties which are already out of compliance to the City’s current zoning regulations, and a proposed alteration or addition results in the need for an area variance from the BZA.

The process to obtain an area variance adds a minimum of six weeks to a building permit’s approval timeline, with additional steps to an approval such as a mailed notification of neighbors, posting notices on the property and presentation at a BZA meeting. While many property owners do choose to go through this process, city planners say many more are deterred by the requirements and lose the will to move forward with their improvements.

One of the big issues is that the appeal process is “one size fits all,” and currently the same for all projects. It is the same regulatory process for construction of a new downtown highrise as it is for the construction of code-compliant steps on a single-family home.

While projects that do not meet zoning requirements warrant a higher level of review, staff, with the BZA’s support, would like to propose an abbreviated staff-level approval process for small projects that involve deficiencies of existing structures—a move with the BZA’s support.

Generally speaking, most small-scale renovations that don’t exacerbate existing zoning deficiencies would be moved from BZA review to staff level. New primary structures, off-street parking variances, telecommunications facilities, and changes that increase the occupancy (units/bedrooms) of structures would still have to go to the BZA.

Zoning Administrator Megan Wilson explained the proposal to the PEDC.

“What we’d like to do is find a way to streamline some of these so that the property owners can make the desired safety repairs and meet code without having to go through a six week process with the BZA,” Wilson said. “Under New York State law, we can’t approve a variance, but we can change the things that require a variance. […] We haven’t drafted an ordinance yet, but that would be the next step if this is something that the Committee would be interested in moving forward.”

Overall feedback from the PEDC was positive. Nguyen was supportive of the streamlining proposal, saying that he felt this was an appropriate intermediate step towards his desire towards a more comprehensive rezoning in the city.

“I think this is a great idea,” added Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd), and her ward colleague Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) agreed. Expect a formal written ordinance to be put forward for review sometime in the next couple of months.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at